Voters get their say on uranium mining in Fall River County

Ballot measure would declare the activity a public nuisance

By: - November 3, 2022 8:17 pm
A sign identifies a repository near Edgemont where 4 million tons of radioactive tailings from a former uranium mill have been buried since the 1980s. (Seth Tupper/South Dakota Searchlight)

A sign identifies a repository near Edgemont where 4 million tons of radioactive tailings from a former uranium mill have been buried since the 1980s. (Seth Tupper/South Dakota Searchlight)

After years of arguing from opposite sides of a mining debate, Mark Hollenbeck and Susan Henderson are about to learn what their friends and neighbors think.

Voters in Fall River County will consider a local ballot measure in the Nov. 8 general election. If approved, the measure would designate uranium mining as an unlawful nuisance in the county. It remains unclear if the vote would prevent mining, however.

The vote is the latest development in a 16-year saga. It’s been that long since a corporation called Powertech formed in South Dakota to pursue a uranium mine on the southwestern edge of the Black Hills, about a dozen miles northwest of Edgemont. Powertech is a subsidiary of Encore Energy, a Texas-based company that wants to sell uranium to nuclear power plants.

Hollenbeck is a local rancher who doubles as Powertech’s project manager. He admitted that the project’s opponents have convinced some people that uranium mining is bad for the environment.

The text of the ballot measure that will appear Nov. 8 on ballots in Fall River County.
The text of a local measure on ballots in Fall River County’s Nov. 8 election.

“Some of that’s hard to un-educate,” Hollenbeck said. “I don’t really know what the feeling is out there.”

Hollenbeck believes the project is environmentally sound and economically positive for the area, including the landowners who hold mineral rights.

On the other side, Henderson is a local rancher who’s been a longtime opponent of the project. She fears the mine would contaminate the aquifers that provide water for her ranch.

Henderson knows some county residents support the mining proposal as a form of economic development. She was surprised at how eagerly local voters signed the petitions placing the nuisance declaration on the ballot.

“I was kind of dumbfounded,” Henderson said, “and I thought, ‘Well, wow. Is this actually going to work?’”

The petition circulators gathered about 450 signatures, Henderson said, which was roughly 200 more than they needed to force the Fall River County Commission to place the issue on the ballot. The basis of the petition is a state law authorizing county commissioners to declare and abate public nuisances outside of city limits.

At a special meeting in August, the county commissioners debated whether the ballot measure would be legally enforceable. Fall River County State’s Attorney Lance Russell told the commissioners that South Dakota mining laws give power to the state – not the county – to permit or reject uranium mining.

South Dakota Searchlight asked Hollenbeck whether Encore Energy executives would challenge the ballot measure in court if voters approve it.

“That’s not my decision, but if it was an impediment, I assume they would,” Hollenbeck said.

The ballot issue is just one of many aspects of a long-running fight. The project’s license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and permits from the Environmental Protection Agency are tied up in administrative appeals and litigation brought by opponents. And the project still requires consideration by the federal Bureau of Land Management and the state of South Dakota.

Uranium was mined in the Edgemont area from the 1950s to the 1970s to support the nation’s buildup of Cold War nuclear weapons. Back then, strip-mining and tunneling were the typical methods of extraction, and many sites were not cleaned up or restored to natural conditions. Lax safety controls and poor regulatory oversight resulted in dangerous radiation exposure for some workers and residents.

Powertech is proposing a different method of mining called “in situ,” which would involve the development of a field of wells. Water drawn from local, underground sources would be treated with liquid oxygen and carbon dioxide, pumped underground to leach uranium from subterranean deposits, and then brought to the surface where the uranium would be processed. The water would be treated and reused, and ultimately disposed by injecting it back underground.

Encore Energy has said it would spend about $32 million during the project’s first two years to get the mine up and running.

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Seth Tupper
Seth Tupper

Seth is editor-in-chief of South Dakota Searchlight. He was previously a supervising senior producer for South Dakota Public Broadcasting and a newspaper journalist in Rapid City and Mitchell.